Teach First ambassador James Birchenough
James Birchenough
Headteacher at TLG and Founder of Wellbeing for Educators and Leaders in Learning (WELL)
Ambassador cohort

Teacher wellbeing is the most important thing: for you and your students

When James started as a trainee, he was overwhelmed with the workload. Now, he advocates that a greater focus on teacher wellbeing is also better for pupils.

If you told me at my assessment centre interview that in six years I'd have completed the Training Programme, moved house five times, gotten married, become a headteacher and had two beautiful children, there’s no way I’d have believed you. What an adventure it’s been. Through it all, I’ve realised that even when the work you’re doing for young people in your care is absolutely vital, the most important thing of all is your own wellbeing.

The Training Programme was the perfect route into teaching for me - I wanted to get stuck in and learn on the job straight away. Soon, I was living in a brand new city, away from my parents and church community for the first time, and in charge of a class of 30 little humans. It forced me to grow up quickly, even with the support of my headteacher and mentor.

A lot of the time I was only just coping with the immense workload: I’d often finish marking and planning at 9pm, after only time for a ready meal for dinner. I’d have to mark books while phoning my fiancée (I couldn’t even give the most important person in my life my undivided attention). By the time I was done, I was too exhausted to do anything meaningful.

Now looking back, I see it didn’t have to be this way: I see that individuals have some power to make wise choices and shift their mindset on work/life balance. I also learned that schools and the government need to make wider changes to set cultures within schools where real work/life balance for teachers is actually attainable.

But at the time, I thought it was inevitable. As I approached marriage, I decided not to stay in teaching. I believed that the job, and the immense workload I thought was inescapable, was incompatible with married life.

However, I still wanted to teach young people and I couldn’t seem to escape teaching even if I wanted to!

What happened after the Training Programme?

Before my two years on the programme finished, I had a job lined up as headteacher at a charity called TLG (Transforming Lives for Good). They run education centres around the country for secondary school-age children at risk of exclusion.

I was given a lot of responsibility early on: line-managing a team of staff was a big deal for someone who had never been a manager of any sort before! Nevertheless, Teach First prepared me well - I was used to growing quickly, acting on feedback and being out of my comfort zone.

After some time in this new role, I realised that work/life balance was possible. I was actively encouraged to leave work at 4 pm and save any unfinished tasks for the next day. My manager led by example by finishing at 4pm herself, while still achieving excellence in her responsibilities. She understood the importance of feeling rested in the morning, family life, hobbies, and the fact that work is only a part of someone’s life - never the whole. She was okay with the change that needed to happen in the school playing out more gradually, if it meant we achieved work/life balance.

Another factor to this was my intentional limit-setting. My marriage was in many ways more important than work. I knew I couldn’t sustain the same workload as the previous two years. My approach helped my team to leave their work at work too, and the culture over time changed from “get the work done at all costs” to “leave at 4pm, non-urgent things can wait until tomorrow”. We didn’t see any less productivity. In fact we saw better outcomes for students and better staff wellbeing, meaning we could be more patient and compassionate with our students.

After almost four years, I can look back and see that yes, all that has come at no cost to achieving our mission. We have continued improving in so many areas: 

  • No pupil has made “less than expected” progress in Maths or English since 2017. 
  • We moved up a grade in our Ofsted inspection. 
  • More students are making transitions back to school after their placements have finished.

Writing Leaving Work at Work

After these experiences, I decided to write a book. I want to share with teachers and school leaders that education doesn’t have to be full of stress and overwork. Just like every pupil’s wellbeing matters, the same is true of each and every education professional. I’m passionate about changing lives of struggling young people, and believe the best way to do that is to support teachers better: if their wellbeing is good, they will be kinder, more empathetic and make wiser decisions, leading to better pupil outcomes.

It’s also been healthy for me to have a goal to pursue in my personal life, separate from work and family life. Without prioritising a personal project, you have little that is meaningful to fill your limited free time with. Quite easily, you can just carry on working through your evenings and weekends; this only leads you closer to burnout.

I wonder what will stand out the most when you look back at your career so far. For me, it’s not whether I got an ‘outstanding’ in a particular lesson observation, or whether the children in my classes liked me. It’s whether I was mentally and emotionally ok; whether I was part of a support network of people who helped each other when we were struggling; whether I could achieve some balance in my life and separate work-time from rest-time.

Knowing what I know now would have made all the difference during those first two years. As I’ve now experienced for myself, drowning in workload isn’t the way it has to be.

Leaving Work At Work is available on Kindle. Check out WELL's website for more information.

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